As I developed the book, I decided I wanted the princess to have an ‘usual’ ability. I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go, but it seemed being telepathic (see every thought), and later, empathic (see only their feelings), seemed the route for me.
Until I thought telepathy was cheating. Allow me to explain.
Given the nature of telepathy and empathic abilities, you could potentially (and possibly, accidentally) create a character with unlimited insight into everyone and everything; you leave nothing to interpretation, and there is nothing to figure out on your own. In fact a character, should the story make it difficult otherwise, could simply explain a difficult plot point, rather than allowing the story to present it. I’ve heard this described as ‘showing vs. telling,’ with telepathy being more on the telling side of the matter.
This was what I found Becky doing at certain points in the story. She would basically start reading minds when I couldn’t get the characters to talk it out. This mostly happened with Richard (actually, I think it only happened with Richard. I’ll elaborate when we get to her), so it became a reliable crutch to get me through the story. Till I got full on writers’ block.
What makes this ‘telepathy/empathic ability’ different from any other ever written in a Sci-Fi novel?
When I read back through the story in the 21st century, I noticed how much she was bailing me out, and I didn’t feel like her role should be a know-it-all. I wanted to throw telepathic/empathic stuff out the window, but I was felt like I needed something operating in a similar manner. Just with well-defined restrictions.
This is why these sorts of abilities seemed like a ‘cheat code.’ Why struggle to get this to make sense? Just tell people what the character is thinking, and move on? I thought. As I tried to place restrictions in my revisions, the restrictions themselves came under question to me. Why can she use them here, but not there? (Because I said so.) Why is her range this amount? (Same.) Why does she use them here, but not there? (Well, um..)
This ability was still only being a crutch. When I realized I didn’t have a good answer to the above question, I knew I had to get rid of it. Completely.
Of course this meant I needed to take a different approach to this ability.
Which brings me to Synesthesia.
In the 20th century, I had read and heard stories (more likely, read AMA articles, see links below) about ‘Synesthesia.’ The simplest explanation I’ve seen for Synesthesia was basically when two or more senses get crossed, creating interesting associations. Examples are sounds having color or words triggering a scent, or even letters having a color all their own. The associations that had been discussed by the various websites points to certain types (at the time) being common, but really, they could be as unique as the person. The research I did was exhaustive enough that I created a suitable ability that in its function it had synesthetic qualities.
One thing I will make clear about the research I did into Synesthesia: I did it a long time ago. Long enough that I can’t be certain the sites I find now are the same ones I could then. I remember them saying it was relatively rare, but some sites now say it could be more common than previously suspected.
Given the variety of types, you may be wondering which gave me the idea for defining Becky’s abilities. It appears I chose emotion-color Synesthesia. I say appears because I did this research on a computer I sold (see Lost and Found), and I didn’t move my research. Oops.
And while I did appear to use this type as the foundation, it wouldn’t exclusively be the way that her abilities worked, or how she responded to stimuli. In fact, other types of synesthesia and other synesthetic features are involved in her abilities. Synesthesia, in its purest form, appears to only be a response to what the senses pick up, and the signals being crossed in fun ways. Or, a response to certain types of information, in the mind of the synesthetic person. The research also seems to indicate that, like any sense, you can choose to ignore it, so as to continue undistracted in whatever task you engage in (like ignoring a flashing light or an annoying sound), or you can allow it to engulf your perceptions completely. While aspects of this did make the cut for Becky, it appears I decided that even Synesthesia was too simplistic for the abilities I wanted for her.
The Clouds of Thought were born.
I now had an idea of how the abilities would operate to her, and Synesthesia gave a foundation to the methodology for the Clouds of Thought. This even made it clearer how it would help her know more things, while preventing her from knowing everything. In a later blog, I may go into more detail regarding the Clouds of Thought, to help everyone understand what it can do. The concept is more elaborate than this book allows for, and more encompassing than it first seems. For now, let’s focus on what we do know, from this book.
Let me share an excerpt, with Becky explaining her ability:
She shakes her head. “Your thoughts will always be your own,” she assures. “A person cannot read your actual thoughts; they cannot see how you understand them. What we can see is how your thoughts influence the cloud, or sound of the world.” She points to her ear. “Most who can, are able to hear the disturbance the firing of a synapse makes on the cloud. Each thought type fires in different ways, makes different sounds and fire at different speeds. When you are watching a person, you will note when they make public a thought, and it helps you understand what you have heard. Our thought patterns, how our synapses fire for these thoughts is often similar between various persons, so you may understand the sounds of a thought, without knowing that person.” She looks toward Richard. “But if you are around a number of people, you will hear the sounds of many thoughts, making it difficult to distinguish an individual pattern. This is what is called the sound of the world, since in a group, there is always the sound of thought, and people who have this gift often seek this sound, or will separate themselves from it.”
I think @adele_domann put it best:
I had a similiar thought when I started developing the Clouds of Thought. For me, thinking you know exactly what a thought is could actually be more dangerous than actually knowing a person’s thought. As technology has improved in our day, we can seemingly do something similar with a live scan MRI, and see how the brain reacts to various stimuli. But likely anyone observing such a scan will assure you that such a scan is open to interpretation as to what you’ve just seen. Are they reacting to the stimuli they just received, or did they just give way to flatulence? The answer could become clear with time and repeated observations (let’s also hope for the former for that poor researcher).
What’s funny is I only shared a small part of how this works for Becky (I was afraid to share too much without an explanation of where the idea came from). In my tweet, I touched on what would appear to be the common form of this ability which she describes as the ‘Sound of the World.’
The ‘Sound of the World’ can be thought of as a sound exclusively produced when a synapse fires, and like Synesthesia, only those who can hear the Sound of the World can hear the synapses firing. Likely, given the traffic in our head, since our thoughts aren’t just what we’re ‘thinking’ about, but would also include things like bodily function (like telling your fingers to stop pressing the “/” key, for exa/mple. Sto/oooop i/t/!), so there would likely be a lot of background noise with whatever else is being thought.
The closest equivalence I could imagine is a white noise generator. If you’ve ever used a white noise generator, you will discover that ‘white noise’ is only one of the forms it produces (on my phone the white noise generator includes brown, purple, pink, blue, and violet noise. And they each sound different). While it could be described by me as static, it is clearly a form of communication for Becky. A language, if you will.
Like any language, if you don’t understand what you’re hearing, it’s all noise (thus the comparision). Being aware that a conversation is being conducted in your presence (should you hear, or even see it) will not make all that is being shared robustly clear. Which is what makes her comment to ‘make public a thought’ important. Much like learning a language, you need context and common ground to understand what you hear. Making public a thought gives her the reference she needs to understand what she just heard. I discovered (much later in life) this was also a very effective way to learn another language. Jumping, while saying the word ‘jump’ in a given language will give you the activity (in this example) to associate with the word you’re learning. A way of creating a synesthetic sensation for yourself, by crossing what you hear with what you’re doing, and your mind retaining the association. You may not jump each time you say the word, but you’ll think about it.
Next week, we will go into more detail regarding ‘the Clouds of Thought,’ and the other two ways Becky can use her skill. Leave your thoughts below.
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Some references regarding Synesthesia:
Neuroscience for kids (multiple additional references can be found here)
This doctor knows exactly how you feel (Pacific Standard)